Water and the Millennium Development Goals
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted in 2000 by world leaders and development institutions with the aim of halving world poverty, and were set to be achieved by 2015. The 8 MDGs provide benchmarks for achieving an end to extreme poverty and also provide a framework for the entire international community to work together towards making sure that development reaches everyone, everywhere.
The introduction of these MDGs launched an unprecedented effort towards poverty eradication and meeting the needs of the world’s poorest people, and some considerable progress has been made. However, there is still a long way to go, and while these issues will not disappear overnight, we think that placing more focus on water will be a huge step in the right direction. Water has a role to play in the achievement of all eight MDGs, and its importance needs to be acknowledged.
Access to safe water and sanitation can underpin success in achieving all the MGDs and should be part of all development initiatives. Having access to safe water certainly does not mean that the world’s problems will be solved, but without improving access to clean water and sanitation services, developing countries will make very little progress towards achieving the MDGs, and existing progress could even be reversed. More recognition for the importance of water is needed, as well as political will from world leaders and citizens to deliver sustainable and equal water services. There is no substitute for water, and without water, there can be no development, no food and no life.
Problems of poverty are inextricably linked with the availability of water, its proximity, its quantity and its quality. For many communities in developing countries, water is not available locally, and people must travel to reach the water source, which is often far away. This means that time and energy which could be used for engaging in profitable work is instead spent on collecting water.
According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (2011) almost 1 billion people are still undernourished, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. A local water source that is easily accessible would allow families to grow their own food sources, providing greater food security.
Larger scale irrigation and drainage systems would also be extremely beneficial to agricultural businesses in developing countries, where changing weather patterns and water shortage are seriously affecting their outputs. Given the huge proportion of people in developing countries who depend heavily on agriculture for their income, a successful agricultural sector would reduce poverty as well as ensuring food security.
School sanitation, including provision of toilets and water, is an important factor affecting attendance and enrolment in schools in developing countries, especially for girls, who are more likely to attend school if there is a separate toilet facility. If water for their homes is not easily accessible locally, children may also be forced to leave school before their primary education is completed in order to make the journey to collect water, or to help complete household chores while another person collects the water.
Women are primarily responsible for the collection and management of household water supplies in developing countries. Where access to water is not readily available, women bear the responsibility of walking to the nearest water source, which can be several miles away. This burden affects women’s physical and mental health, especially those already suffering from malnutrition or undernourishment, and also reduces their physical capability to work, as well as the amount of free time available to engage in work.
The international charity WaterAid argues that living without appropriate sanitation causes a significant amount of stress and anxiety to women, which also affects their ability to carry out everyday tasks. If women are unable to carry out household tasks, the responsibility then usually falls upon younger girls in the family, rather than boys. The role of women in ensuring safe water supplies is also extremely important, and it has been shown that water-related projects have a far greater success rate when women are involved than when they are excluded.
According to UNICEF, about 4,500 children die each day from unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation facilities, and 90% of deaths from diarrhoeal diseases due to unsafe water or poor sanitation services in the developing world occur in children below 5 years of age. Without effective sanitation procedures, water sources are at high risk of contamination by waterborne diseases, and without adequate or accessible health services, these diseases which can be easily treatable in developed countries are often fatal to those living in developing nations.
In developing countries, women are often the household managers, and are responsible for most household and family activities. Because of this, women are often forced to walk several miles to collect water even during pregnancy, which takes a heavy toll on their health. Lack of access to safe water and sanitation services leaves people more susceptible to illness, and these illnesses are often fatal. For families in developing countries, the loss of a mother is disastrous.
Research has shown that children in developing countries, especially those under the age of 10, are often likely to die within 2 years after their mother’s death. Children who survive are less likely to attend school, and more likely to suffer from poor health. The death of a mother undermines household income and management, as well as the future of the remaining household members.
People who live with dirty water and limited sanitation services are more likely to contract water-related illnesses, and in turn are very likely to have compromised immune systems, which may cause them to succumb more easily and rapidly to the HIV virus and develop AIDS-related illnesses.
Once contracted, these diseases can be passed on to others in the family or community. Safe drinking water and basic sanitation can help prevent water-related diseases and improve the overall immune system, which then helps to mitigate the effects of HIV/AIDS and fight off future diseases. In countries where people’s immune systems may already be compromised due to malnutrition and health services are limited, clean water is essential.
Protection and careful management of water resources is central to the challenge of achieving the MDGs. As the global population continues to grow, the need to provide sufficient food, water and sanitation for everyone has never been greater. Currently, one billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 2.4 billion to adequate sanitation, while millions more suffer from food shortage.
Population growth will increase the number of people suffering from the lack of food, water and sanitation services, so changes and improvements to existing systems must be made. Increased food and water supplies will need to be produced, particularly in developing countries, so fair access to sustainable agricultural processes and water resources must become available.
Previous achievements in increasing food production and access to water have been associated with management practices that have degraded the land and water systems. Future improvements will therefore have to come from sustainable methods that make effective use of land and water resources without jeopardising them.
This depends on all countries making a concerted effort to work towards human development, as well as economic development. Development in terms of the economy, health, food and education requires a strong focus on water, due to its importance in all aspects of the MDGs, as mentioned above.
Lecture notes from Dr. Nata Duvvury, ‘Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Poverty: Developing a Conceptual Frame’, NUIG, 17/11/2011.